LETTER : A rat race which is breeding first-degree rats

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PROFESSOR Birkenhead lays the blame for the epidemic of book slashing in British university libraries on "a massive increase in student numbers with- out the extra resources to cope with them" ("Rip-offs and razor blades in the halls of academe", 16 July). As he says, there is intense competition for limited resources. However, it is quite probable that even tripling library resources would not eradicate the problem. Neither can the practice be blamed on the high cost of photocopying or the long queues at the photocopiers.

One likely explanation is indicated in your editorial ("New student slash and learn policy") which suggests that book slashing is "about getting the edge" over your fellow students. My experience as a librarian at the University of Brighton has shown that the spirit of competition evinced in the book-slashing epidemic is found in surprising places; the practice is, for example, widespread among students of the so-called "caring professions", such as nurses, physiotherapists and midwives.

However, selfishness is not the whole explanation. The explosion in student numbers, together with developments such as the emphasis on core modules has meant that many more students are competing for the same resources. Lecturers have had to find mechanisms to cope. A common strategy is to issue large numbers of students with lists of "essential reading" from "key sources". These lists are often highly prescriptive, constituting maybe three or four items from library books and journals. However, stock duplication is not the answer, although lecturers often argue that it is. One solution is to abandon the practice of supplying core reading lists, and instead to encourage students to acquire knowledge independently from a breadth of sources, finding out information for themselves from the plethora of library catalogues, CD-Roms and on-line sources. Reading lists tend to foster an attitude of "read that, done that" incompatible with the spirit of independent inquiry.

Student numbers will not decrease, and staff numbers are unlikely to increase. If the circum- stances cannot be changed (unlikely under the present govern- ment), then the teaching and learning process must.

Jane Palmer

Department of Learning Resources,

University of Brighton